Tuned In

How ‘The Bridge’ Solved the Mystery (of How Not to Ruin a Murder Mystery Show)

The serial-killer story is one of the least interesting aspects of FX's new drama--and that's how you build a show that can survive its first murder.

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Byron Cohen/FX Network

Brief but significant spoilers for the season to date of FX’s The Bridge follow:

So we know who it is. I won’t go into many details of last night’s “Vendetta” episode of The Bridge, partly because, like much of the murder investigation to date, the reveal about Tate/Hasting was not that compelling. The case has not unfolded badly, but it’s not been a stunner. We had our expected run of false leads, some stabbings and shootings, and the revenge motive that “Vendetta” revealed–while I understand it tracks the original, which I haven’t seen–is at least little far-fetched.

So why does The Bridge remain one of my favorite new shows of the year, and one I’m most hopeful to see new seasons of? Because of how well it’s developed every aspect of itself that’s not about the murders.

Really, by giving us this information several episodes before the end of the season, The Bridge made a statement: that the mystery is not the be-all and end-all of the show. Rather, the case (like the Beast’s murders themselves) was a means to an end, in this case, establishing a set of characters and conflicts and a world on the U.S.-Mexico border, that have the potential to carry stories and themes for years.

AMC’s The Killing, true to its name, lived and died (so to speak) by the murder mystery introduced in its first season. It had haunting emotional moments and a few great performances, but it squandered them by prolonging the case through a string of ever-redder herrings. In its recent third season, it was somewhat improved, maybe because it felt liberated from the Rosie Larsen case, but it felt too late. Over two years, the show had established mood but it hadn’t really built a universe, which is what, in a continuing series, invites you to take off your shoes and stay awhile.

The Bridge’s producers, on the other hand, quickly realized that a murder on a border was interesting–but what was sustainingly interesting was that border itself. There’s the stark contrast between the cultures and economies of the worlds a few miles apart; the different cultures and worldviews that affect even how policework is done. When Marco (a wonderfully hangdog Demian Bechir) explains to Sonya (Diane Kruger), repeatedly, the Mexican proverb about soup falling on the way from the bowl to the mouth, he’s really describing a way of seeing the world–a resignation, an adaptation to a life that doesn’t permit boundless optimism.

But the tale-of-two-ciudads aspect is just the beginning of how The Bridge has fleshed itself out. Sonya’s Aspberger’s has been handled as much more than a quirky affectation. The show has committed itself to equal immersion in the U.S. and Mexican sides of the border, down to the subplots and, impressively, trusting the audience to take long scenes of subtitled Spanish every episode. Bit characters like Linder have grown fascinating, and while I’m still waiting to see how events at the ranch fit into the larger picture, I’m intrigued by the place as a literal conduit between the moneyed world and the underworld. (And like The Killing, The Bridge does mood well too, beginning with its hypnotic title sequence.)

As with this summer’s British mystery import, Broadchurch, what distinguishes The Bridge is its commitment to making the living characters more interesting than the deaths. A good TV drama creates the impression that its world extends beyond what you see on the screen, that it’s fleshed out and thought through. A bad one makes you aware you could take two steps off the screen and bump into the craft-services table.

In a session at this summer’s TCA press tour, the producers of The Bridge said that they’d wanted to get though this case without dragging it out because they came to realize that the border had enough stories to filled several seasons. I hope and suspect they’re right. What draws me to this show ultimately is not the initial killings discovered on its bridge, but the sense it creates that you could cross that bridge and keep driving and driving and driving.